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Excel Tips & Tricks #482 – Get Data From Picture

Author: Ian Pay

Published: 30 Oct 2023

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Hello all and welcome back to Excel Tips and Tricks! This week, we have a Creator level post in which we're covering some relatively new functionality that allows users to capture data into a spreadsheet from an image.

Last year Microsoft introduced some potentially nifty OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology into Excel for the first time. Users can now import data into Excel from images, opening up a whole new world of spreadsheet data entry, especially from more hard-to-reach sources such as printed documents, PDFs and other pictures.

This functionality is available to anyone using Microsoft 365, including both desktop and web applications, Office for Mac, and even iOS and Android apps (more on those later). What’s more, it’s alarmingly easy to use.

Picture to Data in 3 clicks

At a basic level, it’s possible to get data into Excel from a screenshot in just 3 simple steps:

  1. Take the screenshot – per our exploration of screenshots in Tip #442, the best approach here is to use the Windows screen snipping tool to just select the portion of the screen showing the table
tips and ticks  - excel image
  1. Go to Data > From Picture > Picture from Clipboard
tips and ticks  - excel image

(note, if you want to use an existing image, ‘Picture From File’ works in exactly the same way and supports most image formats)

  1. The Data from Picture wizard will analyse the image:
tips and ticks  - excel image

And from here, if you wished you could simply click ‘Insert Data’ to paste it into your workbook, with the selected cell being the top left corner of the paste area:

tips and ticks  - excel image
tips and ticks  - excel image

The feature in Excel on the Web works in much the same way, but unfortunately does not currently support images from clipboard, only from local picture files.

Reviewing for accuracy

Helpfully, it is possible to manually check and amend any of the imported values. Simply navigate the grid in the bottom half of the pane and it will zoom in on the relevant part of the image:

tips and ticks  - excel image
Excel also highlights in red any cells which it is unsure about – if you click ‘Review’ it will take you through each of these in turn which you can edit (or not) and then ‘Accept’:
tips and ticks  - excel image

While this does add some steps to the process, it is well worth doing as it is much easier to check and edit within the wizard instead of flipping between your Excel sheet and the original image.

A feature that works better not on Windows?!

Say it quietly, but the ‘get data from picture’ feature is even better on Macs and with mobile devices, for one very simple reason – it opens up the ability to take pictures of tables from your phone, and bring the data straight into Excel.

If you’re using Office for Mac, you can right-click in any cell and select ‘Scan Document’. This will open up the camera on a linked iOS device (running iOS 12 or later) to take a picture of a document that is then loaded into Excel following the same steps as shown above.

tips and ticks  - excel image
tips and ticks  - excel image
On the mobile versions of Excel, you can also import images directly from your camera. With the workbook open, select the button in the bottom left to close the sheets bar, and then the icon towards the right to import data from picture. This opens the camera (providing the app has sufficient permissions), and once a picture is taken a cropping window is shown with the table – in theory – automatically highlighted, though this can be edited before pressing ‘Continue’. The process to review and insert the data into the spreadsheet is then very similar to the Desktop experience.
tips and ticks  - excel image

Even if you don’t have Excel on your mobile device, or the iOS capabilities, you can still take pictures with your mobile as usual, transfer them to your desktop device (via OneDrive or similar, perhaps) and import using the approach from above.

Formatting and OCR frailties

The above example highlights some of the challenges with the technology. One important point to note is that the OCR technology used here is never going to be 100% accurate. Even when reading screenshots from Excel tables, it can and will make mistakes. It can struggle a bit more where the image doesn’t have clear gridlines, will not generally capture formatting (although number formatting seems to be OK, for example it will read numbers in brackets as negative), and even different screenshots of the same data may generate slightly different outputs:

tips and ticks  - excel image
It’s really important to use the import tools to properly review and check the data has been read correctly before starting to use it – remember, once it’s pasted into your workbook, you can’t go back and edit the import, so get it as accurate as you can to start with. Also be aware that it doesn’t consistently handle merged cells, and if it gets the alignment wrong you can’t use the wizard to add or remove rows or columns, this will have to be done in the sheet once the data is pasted. And if you’re taking a picture with your phone, don’t be afraid to have a few goes at it to ensure the lighting and angles capture the table as cleanly and clearly as possible. But, with all this in mind, give it a go and see what the results look like!
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